Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Making Things

I've been re-reading quite a bit of Marx lately. Obviously, his most famous statements deal with the oppression and alienation inherent in wage labor, but his historical conception of mankind as homo faber isn't talked about quite as much. It's such a beautiful theory, and very resonant for artists (at least for this one). According to Marx, the defining characteristic of man from pre-history onward is not specifically language, civil society, democracy, or any of the other special capacities that separate us from the animals - it's the skill we display in making things. Everything else; politics, religion, law, and even language spring up because of and in response to the things we make.

Beavers make dams and bees make hives, but humanity does something more. To almost all of the things it makes, it applies an aesthetic standard. The handle of a hammer is designed to fit a hand, but its gentle and graceful curves are certainly not simply a feature of functionality. Further, after it has made all of the things necessary for survival (or, like the hammer, tools to that end), humanity makes things that it wants but doesn't need. And the ultimate celebration of these two facts is art. It has no survival function, yet it exists in virtually every society in history on every continent.

As readers of No Hassle at the Castle well know, I love painting, and I'm often left with an icy cold feeling in the face of readymades, things made to look clumsy or amateurish on purpose, or things whose primary function is critical. As I go back through various passages of Marx, I can see that the vague feeling of sadness I get looking at things from this latter group comes from the dimunition, to various degrees, of the artist fully expressing her creative and productive powers, both in terms of her specific individuality and our collective capacity as a species.

Which is not to say I don't find excitement in ideas - this is, after all, what I'm responding to in Marx. But when I'm looking at art (as opposed to reading an essay) I want to see a thing. I want it to be an aesthetic thing which has a great deal of the maker's time, skill, commitment, experience, and personal expression invested in it. When I can perceive all of these things in a work of art, I not only feel the artist's fully developed humanity and autonomy but my own as well. At the highest level, it's a feeling of exuberance and elation. Not in the religious sense, in which a transcendence of the flesh is the desired effect, but in the sense that with all of our physical limitations, with gravity, sickness, and ultimately death, we can still do this miraculous thing. Conversely, it's hard for me to look at the self-alienation of an art object from which the maker purposefully creates a critical or ironic distance.

Marx, like most of the major thinkers throughout history, is open to multiple interpretations, many being quite contradictory, Coming out of the '60's, the prevailing interpretation of Marxist theory as it related to art was that that a painting or sculpture was little more than a saleable fetish object, the material residue of the most important aspect of art, which was the transmission of the art idea from the mind of the artist to the mind of the viewer. The most rigorous application of this view could be seen in Conceptual Art, especially in certain works by Kosuth and Bochner. In this view the art object was little more than a commodity, and the rapciousness and lack of discernment of a certain kind of collector, which was brought to a crescendo in the '90's and early '00's, seemed to bolster that view.

But if one applies Marx's theory of humanity and takes a closer look at his economic theory, it yields a different view. If art is in fact the highest level of development of mankind's awesome ability to create, made so by the fact that it celebrates this capacity purely and with no practical utility in mind, then obviously the greatest examples are rare and very, very precious. And all things that are recognized as precious by the society at large are, sadly, coveted by the very wealthy.

The problem here lies not with art or art objects, it lies within political and economic systems that allow for vast private fortunes. No work of art, no matter if it is dematerialized or purposely made to look ugly or clumsy or made of ephemeral materials, can escape or resist. If it is deemed to be art of a very high order by the recognized tastemakers in a given society, the very wealthy will want to own it. And further, taking steps to try and reduce the preciousness of art in order to resist are tantamount to a kind of self-mutilation on the part of the artist. These things will only be heralded by the minority of viewers who feel that the avoidance of collectors (and not the expression of essential humanity and a highly personal vision) is the artists' primary goal. And ironically, if that constituency is viewed as credible this art will, at least for a while, become precious and the rich will want it anyway.

Early in his career Marx was strongly influenced by Hegel, and in the latter's Master and Slave dialectic from the Phenomenology of Spirit, the seeds can be found for Marx's theory of the deep meaning humans find in making things and also of its potential for alienation. In Hegel, the master has the slave make things for him. And the more time and skill the slave displays in his various crafts, the more the things he makes become his own - his personality is so thoroughly stamped on the objects as a result of his time and talent that they are more his than the master's. The master, according to Hegel, can only take a limited amount of pleasure in these things, because while he owns the slave, he can only provisionally own the fruits of his labor. Metaphysically, the slave is free because of this.

This last point is where Hegel's idealism and Marx's materialism diverge. The slave is not free, according to Marx; he is still very much a slave. And because he is not permitted to enjoy the objects of his own production, the things he makes become alienated from him. This process of alienation is exacerbated by the division of labor, brought to new heights during the industrial revolution, wherein the maker seldom saw the beginning or end of his production, had no say in it's design or shape, and was completely anonymous in the thing's presentation to the world. This scheme of production has become the model for the vast majority of industries since the 19th century, and not just blue collar jobs either. People are largely alienated from the things they make, and the sense of frustration and dissatisfaction that so many people feel while working is exactly as Marx predicted it would be as alienated labor became the norm.

Art provides an oasis from the drabness of this mode of production. But moreover, the art object, far from being a leftover for the art idea or an expensive bauble, is a tangible symbol that another way is possible, made so by the skill, invention, care, time, freedom, and essential humanity imbued in it by its maker. There is much talk in contemporary criticism about art corresponding very closely to its own era, its own zeitgeist. But to me, this seems like a secondary consideration - the most asinine moments on MTV and sitcoms and reality TV talk to the zeitgeist at least as well if not better than artists ever could. But none of these things can approach the profundity of homo faber at work, making marvelous, skillful things for no other reason than because he or she can.